The Roundup for May 12-18, 2018 Edition

Soar by Christopher Parsons

It’s become incredibly popular to attribute the activities undertaken by the Facebooks and Googles of the work to ‘surveillance capitalism’. This concept generally asserts that the current dominant mode of economics has become reliant on surveillance to drive economic growth. Surveillance, specifically, is defined as the act of watching or monitoring activity with the intent of using captured information to influence behaviour. In the world of the Internet, this information tends to be used to influence purchasing behaviours.

The issue that I have with the term surveillance capitalism is that I’m uncertain whether it comprehensively captures the activities associated with the data-driven economy. Surveillance Studies scholars tend to apply the same theories which are used to understand CCTV to practices such as machine learning; in both cases, the technologies are understood as establishing feedback loops to influence an individual or entire population. But, just as often, neither CCTV nor machine learning actually have a person- or community-related feedback loop. CCTV cameras are often not attended to, not functional, or don’t provide sufficient information to take action against those being recorded. Nor do individuals necessarily modify their own behaviours in the presence of such cameras. Similarly, machine learning algorithms may not be used to influence all persons: in some cases, they may be sufficiently outside the scope of whatever the algorithm is intended to do that they are not affected. Also, like CCTV, individuals may not modify their own behaviours when machine learning algorithms are working on the data those individuals are generating on the basis of being unaware of machine learning operating on their data.

So, where surveillance capitalism depends on a feedback loop that is directly applied towards individuals within a particular economic framework, there may be instances where data is collected and monetized without clear or necessary efforts to influence individuals. Such situations could include those where a machine learning algorithm is designed to improve a facial recognition system, or improve battery life based on the activities undertaken by a user, or to otherwise very quietly make tools more effective without a clear attempt to modify user behaviour. I think that such activities may be very clearly linked to monetization and, more broadly, an ideology backed by capitalism. But I’m not sure it’s surveillance as it’s rigorously defined by scholars.

So one of the things that I keep thinking about is whether we should shift away from the increasingly-broad use of ‘surveillance capitalism’ to, more broadly, talk about ‘data capitalism’. I’m not suggesting doing away with the term surveillance capitalism but, instead, that surveillance capitalism is a sub-genus of data capitalism. Data capitalism would, I believe, better capture the ways in which information is collected, analyzed, and used to effect socio-technical changes. Further, I think such a term might also capture times where those changes are arguably linked to capitalist aims (i.e. enhancing profitability) but may be less obviously linked to the feedback loops towards individuals that are associated with surveillance itself.


After approximately twenty months of work, my colleagues and myself have published an extensive report on encryption policies in Canada. It’s a major accomplishment for all of us to have finally concluded the work, and we’re excited by the positive feedback we’ve received about it.


Inspiring Quotation of the Week

“Ambition is a noble passion which may legitimately take many forms… but the noblest ambition is that of leaving behind something of permanent value.”

– G.H. Hardy

Great Photography Shots

Some of these storm chaser photos are practically otherworldly.

Music I’m Digging

Neat Podcast Episodes

Good Reads for the Week

Cool Things

The Roundup for May 5-11, 2018 Edition

The Ride by Christopher Parsons

During my Master’s degree I was given the opportunity to provide feedback on early work being written by Jim Tully and Jurgen Habermas. Reading their work and thinking about it seriously and critically so as to suggest improvements taught me the importance of grace in feedback and, also, that even superstar scholars produce first drafts that leave significant room for improvement. Most importantly, it taught me that the finished material that I was reading in journals and books came from authors who’s draft writing was flawed, just like my first drafts.1

Engaging with drafts is probably one of the hardest things that you can do, because you want to be as helpful as possible and — at least in academia — that often means being incredibly critical of the work in question. The intent shouldn’t ever be to ‘kill’ the work; whatever criticism is provided ought to be nuanced with the view of improving it. A reviewer should indicate why a particular section, or paragraph, or sentence is a problem, provide ideas for resolving the tension if any come to mind, and even suggest alternate ways of thinking about the idea, concept, or text under review. At all points the goal should not be to edit and critique, not for the sake of editing and engaging in critique, but instead in the service of supporting the author so that their work communicates their ideas, descriptions, and conclusions in the most concise and illuminating ways possible.

Because the first authors I provided serious feedback to were paragons in my field at the time I had to be careful, nuanced, and generous in my comments. I had to really engage with the work and not give it a quick read and spit out half-baked analyses and critiques. Unfortunately, not enough reviewers of academic texts provide this kind of thoughtful response, likely because most reviewers are rushing to read and review the piece so they can get to their own commitments. As a result, comments and feedback can be abrupt, not engage with core arguments, and be overly brief to the point of being unhelpful to the author.

Reviewing is one of the most thankless jobs in academia, and more broadly in the literary community. Authors know the importance of strong reviewers. But this reviewing element of the writing process is entirely invisible to people who just read the finished work and, by extension, leads to conclusions that authors somehow produce brilliant prose out of nowhere. Lost is the fact that all manuscripts are really multi-authored; it’s just that the ‘lesser’ secondary authors who engage with the author at the earliest stages to course correct the text, to provide suggestions, and to suggest different phrasings, are left off. And that’s perfectly fine. But I think that it’d be a lot less scary for people to start writing if they realized that the process writing almost always involves a large number of non-authors who help to evolve a work from first to final draft, and how significantly ideas and intentions behind a work’s publication can change from inception to conclusion. In effect, I think it’d be useful to know that the ‘stars’ in any given literary field stand at the forefront of a small army of helpers, assistants, and supporters, as opposed to heroically on their lonesome with their finished manuscripts.


The Paywall Craze

Paul Om wrote,

… I think the paywall craze which is sweeping the media herd will be a big reality check for the news and magazine publishers. So many of them are drinking their own spiked kool -aid. They will soon realize the size of their “real audience” and will soon realize that they don’t pass the “value for money” threshold. There are very few publications that have a feeling of must-reads and must-haves.

This feels pretty dead on; the issue, today, is that there is so much content that the act of choosing is the hard part. I think that the only content that is going to be subscribed to is either that which is regarded as essential to someone’s life or that they spend money on in order to focus their time and attention on it. Sure, there’s some popular media that will survive a shift to paywalls but I suspect a lot of organizations will realize just how little their readers actually value what was being produced. And that’s going to hurt for the media organizations and for the writers working there.


Inspiring Quotation of the Week

In many ways, fame is the industrial disease of creativity. It’s a sludgy byproduct of making things.

—Mike Myers

Great Art

I really love these illustration by Jenn Woodall

May banner by Jenn Woodall
Know Your Enemy by Jenn Woodall
Painting for ‘GIRLS GIRLS GIRLS’ who at Northern Contemporary Gallery by Jenn Woodall

Music I’m Digging

Neat Podcast Episodes

Good Reads for the Week

  1. I mean, their work was more complex and nuanced that my work at the time. But in all our cases the first draft was the first stab at explaining and arguing instead of being the first and final word(s).

The Roundup for April 28-May 4, 2018 Edition

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Hoop Dreams by Christopher Parsons

In the wake of the Toronto attack any number of journalists are trying to become experts on the ‘incel’ community, which defines itself as a community of men who are involuntarily celibate and as deserving intercourse with women. It’s led to some suggestions that maybe it’s appropriate to think about policy solutions to the ‘problem’. At issue, of course, is that some persons have failed to recognize the problem itself. Consider Ross Douthat, who links Amia Srinivasan’s ruminations on the links between desire and politics with incels, effectively conjoining a misogynistic subculture with “the overweight and disabled, minority groups treated as unattractive by the majority, trans women unable to find partners and other victims … of a society that still makes us prisoners of patriarchal and also racist-sexist-homophobic rules of sexual desire.” Douthat continues to ultimately argue that a combination of commerce, technology, and efforts to destigmatize sex work will lead to “at a certain point, without anyone formally debating the idea of a right to sex, right-thinking people will simply come to agree that some such right exists, and that it makes sense to look to some combination of changed laws, new technologies and evolved mores to fulfill it.”

Douthat’s entire argumentative structure — that the ‘problem’ to solve in an inability to engage in sexual, if not romantic, relationships — is predicated on the notion that there is such a thing as a legitimate right to intercourse. There is not. There is a legitimate right to safe, respectful, and destigmatized sexual relationships and activities. There is a right to sexual education, to sexual health and wellbeing, but there is no right to intercourse: such a right would imply that the act of penetrating another person is necessary and appropriate. That is clearly not the case.

Instead, the problem with the incel community is linked with misogyny. Specifically, as Jessica Valenti writes, the problem is with misogynist terrorism, a situation where certain men’s disdain towards women drives mass murders. Part of solving this particular problem is linked with addressing the underlying culture in America, and the world more generally. Specifically, she writes:

Part of the problem is that American culture still largely sees men’s sexism as something innate rather than deviant. And in a world where sexism is deemed natural, the misogynist tendencies of mass shooters become afterthoughts rather than predictable and stark warnings.

The truth is that in addition to not protecting women, we are failing boys: failing to raise them to believe they can be men without inflicting pain on others, failing to teach them that they are not entitled to women’s sexual attention and failing to allow them an outlet for understandable human fear and foibles that will not label them “weak” or unworthy.

It’s essential that men, and boys, learn about how to engage with other humans in non-destructive ways. Such a process is borderline revolutionary because it entails reshaping how cultural, social, legal, and economic relationships are structured, and any such restructuring must be motivated by a rebalancing of power relationships across genders and races (and, ultimately, geographies). The outcome will be that the privilege that straight white men have enjoyed for centuries will be diminished and, correspondingly, restrict the social and economic opportunities that some men have enjoyed solely because of their gender and race. But those changes are essential if we’re to actually confront the misogyny and racism that underlies not just incel culture, but that of mainstream society and politics as well.


Inspiring Quotation of the Week

Writing—I can really only speak to writing here—always, always only starts out as shit: an infant of monstrous aspect; bawling, ugly, terrible, and it stays terrible for a long, long time (sometimes forever). Unlike cooking, for example, where largely edible, if raw, ingredients are assembled, cut, heated, and otherwise manipulated into something both digestible and palatable, writing is closer to having to reverse-engineer a meal out of rotten food.

  • David Rokoff

New Apps

Great Photography Shots

I’d never seen x-ray photos of flowers before. It’s an absolutely breathtaking form of image making.

Photo manipulation by Edmanep

Music I’m Digging

Neat Podcast Episodes

Good Reads for the Week

Cool Things

Aside

The Roundup for April 23-20, 2018 Edition

Hidden Point by Christopher Parsons

I shifted over to this domain name, and WordPress environment, a little over eight months ago. In addition to moving multiple years of content I also committed to at least one post a week though, ideally, would post many more than that!

I’ve been largely successful with meeting those goals. As such, I’ve been able to maintain a regular personal writing habit. It’s also meant I’ve locked down some of my ruminations and thoughts so that I can reflect on them later on down the line.

However, there are some things that I’m not entirely happy with. First, I’ve been privately writing small ‘reviews’ of books and movies but haven’t gotten around to posting them here. Part of that is wanting to do them ‘well’ and the other reason is that I’m trying to decide if I should have posts and then a master page that links to the posts, or just posts, or just a page. But expect that to be figured out pretty soon.1 I also really like the idea of putting up a gear/software list of things that I routinely use, and want to steal an idea from a friend of mine who posts the podcasts that she’s really into at any given time. And I want to put some thought into developing a public blogroll, likely based on the RSS feeds that I consume, though I admit that I’m not entirely sure of the utility of blogrolls in this day and age.

The reason for contemplating these changes to some of the content and structure? Mostly because I think I can move more of my writing to this location; there’ve only been a few times that I thought I was getting too ‘close’ to mimicking the work on my professional web presence or private journal, and even then the tone was sufficiently different that it belonged here as opposed to those other locations. But I’m also motivated to modify some of the content here because I want what I write to be interesting and useful for other people; I often find that bloggers’ reviews and insights about the things they use are the only way that I discover the existence of certain tools, products, workflows, and cultural items. So I want to give back to others, just as they have freely given to me and everyone else who visits (or has visited) their sites.


I spent some time this week writing about a recent proposal to significantly weaken the security of the devices we carry with us on a daily basis. In short, I think that the proposal:

doesn’t address the real technical or policy problems associated with developing a global backdoor system to our most personal electronic devices. Specifically the architect of the solution overestimates the existent security characteristics of contemporary devices, overestimates the ability of companies to successfully manage a sophisticated and globe-spanning key management system, fails to address international policy issues about why other governments couldn’t or wouldn’t demand similar kinds of access (think Russia, China, Iran, etc), fails to contemplate an adequate key revocation system, and fails to adequately explain why why the exceptional access system he envisions is genuinely needed.

Device security, and especially efforts to weaken it, fundamentally raises technical and policy issues. Neither type of issue can be entirely divorced from the other, and it’s important to recognize that the policy issues are both domestic and international; failing to address them both, at the same time, means that any proposal will almost certainly have terminal weaknesses.


Inspiring Quotation of the Week

“Do not let anything that happens in life be important enough that you’re willing to close your heart over it.”

— Michael A. Singer

Great Photography Shots

The shots from this year’s Sony 2018 World Photography Awards are stunning. Here are some of my favourites:

“Untitled” from the series “Ex-Voto” © Alys Tomlinson, United Kingdom, Photographer of the Year, Professional, Discovery, 2018 Sony World Photography Awards
“Letter of departure” © Edgar Martins, Portugal, 1st Place, Professional, Still Life (Professional competition), 2018 Sony World Photography Awards

Music I’m Digging

Neat Podcast Episodes

Good Reads for the Week

Footnotes

  1. I suspect I’ll opt to a post-per-review, with them aggregated on a distinct page.

The Roundup for April 14-20, 2018 Edition

Walkways by Christopher Parsons

Earlier this year, I suggested that the current concerns around Facebook data being accessed by unauthorized third parties wouldn’t result in users leaving the social network in droves. Not just because people would be disinclined to actually leave the social network but because so many services use Facebook.

Specifically, one of the points that I raised was:

3. Facebook is required to log into a lot of third party services. I’m thinking of services from my barber to Tinder. Deleting Facebook means it’s a lot harder to get a haircut and impossible to use something like Tinder.

At least one company, Bumble, is changing its profile confirmation methods: whereas previously all Bumble users linked their Facebook information to their Bumble account for account identification, the company is now developing their own verification system. Should a significant number of companies end up following Bumble’s model then this could have a significant impact on Facebook’s popularity, as some of the ‘stickiness’ of the service would be diminished.1

I think that people moving away from Facebook is a good thing. But it’s important to recognize that the company doesn’t just provide social connectivity: Facebook has also made it easier for businesses to secure login credential and (in others cases) ‘verify’ identity.2 In effect one of the trickiest parts of on boarding customers has been done by a third party that was well resourced to both collect and secure the data from formal data breaches. As smaller companies assume these responsibilities, without the equivalent to Facebook’s security staff, they are going to have to get very good, very fast, at protecting their customers’ information from data breaches. While it’s certainly not impossible for smaller companies to rise to the challenge, it won’t be a cost free endeavour, either.

It will be interesting to see if more companies move over to Bumble’s approach or if, instead, businesses and consumers alike merely shake their heads angrily at Facebook’s and continue to use the service despite its failings. For what it’s worth, I continue to think that people will just shake their heads angrily and little will actually come of the Cambridge Analytica story in terms of affecting the behaviours and desires of most Facebook users, unless there are continued rapid and sustained violations of Facebook users’ trust. But hope springs eternal and so I genuinely do hope that people shift away from Facebook and towards more open, self-owned, and interesting communications and networking platforms.


Thoughtful Quotation of the Week

The brands themselves aren’t the problem, though: we all need some stuff, so we rely on brands to create the things we need. The problem arises when we feel external pressure to acquire as if new trinkets are a shortcut to a more complete life. That external pressure shouldn’t be a sign to consume. If anything, it’s a sign to pause and ask, “Who am I buying this for?”

Great Photography Shots

I was really stunned by Zsolt Hlinka’s architectural photography, which was featured on My Modern MET.

Music I’m Digging

Neat Podcast Episodes

Good Reads for the Week

Cool Things

Footnotes

  1. I think that the other reasons I listed in my earlier post will still hold. Those points were:

    1. Few people vote. And so they aren’t going to care that some shady company was trying to affect voting patterns.
    2. Lots of people rely on Facebook to keep passive track of the people in their lives. Unless communities, not individuals, quit there will be immense pressure to remain part of the network.

  2. I’m aware that it’s easy to establish a fake Facebook account and that such activity is pretty common. Nevertheless, an awful lot of people use their ‘real’ Facebook accounts that has real verification information, such as email addresses and phone numbers.

The Roundup for April 7-13, 2018 Edition

Love, Locked by Christopher Parsons

In my ongoing efforts to better understand myself, I’ve been listening to some of the early episodes of Gary Dunn’s podcast, Bad With Money. These episodes tend to focus on the narratives around money that have guided how she lives her life, where she learned them from, and how to overcome them, and have entailed conversations between her and her parents, her boyfriend, and with a financial psychologist and her sister.

What she’s learned, and how information is presented, has often resonated with my own experiences growing up in a family that went from middle-class, of upper-lower class, and then has split along a series of different lines as I’ve grown older. A lot of the conversations focus on how what her parents did with money while she was growing up subtly informed how Gaby, herself, has approached money as a result. And it’s gotten me thinking about the money narratives that I learned from my dad (generally really bad) and my mom (not super-terrific).

Of course, listening to some podcasts isn’t going to correct the narratives that have built up in my own head over the past several decades (e.g. debt is normal to have and carry, retirement savings are almost impossible, you should enjoy the benefits of your work now instead of later) but they do help to make explicit some of the challenges I know I need to overcome. Some of the conversations she’s had with her guests have been more or less insightful but, in aggregate, they’re useful because she uses such natural language to approach financial questions and issues that pervade many people’s daily lives. This natural language matters because it makes very clear that the show isn’t about an expert from on high explaining reality but, instead, involves the self-discovery of Gaby (and through her some discovery of the precise questions I need to ask myself). Her narratives and my own are not the same but the questions, on their own, are sufficient to jumpstart internal introspection.

The interviews she conducts are also helpful because so few people talk about financial mindsets in public that it’s hard to hear, let alone understand, the money narratives that different people hold. Through that act of listening I can better identify and situate my own narratives and ascertain what is normal, abnormal, and what needs to be corrected or remain the same. Dunn’s podcast is definitely only an early starting point but, regardless, it’s super helpful for people who don’t want to invest money but, instead, want to invest in themselves and their personal development.


On the same track of ‘podcasts I’ve listened to’ over the course of the past week, Dear Sugars has had a really good (if hard) series of episodes on consent in sexual relationships. The women who are submitting the questions are incredibly brave for presenting their experiences, and the hosts of the show are incredibly kind and nuanced in their analyses of what has taken place in their own pasts and in the lives of their letter writers. I care deeply about ensuring that all relationships — sexual or not — are consensual and these podcasts have given me insights to the challenges facing women that I may never have fully appreciated before listening to this series of episodes.


Insightful Quotation

One of the defining things about the nature of ideas is just how fragile they are: when you’re not sure whether some-thing is going to work, the idea is vulnerable. Part of protecting the idea is to be careful about who you show it to; premature criticism can shut something down that perhaps deserves more of a chance.

Great Photography Shots

I was really impressed by the water-inspired smartphone photos posted to Mobiography.

Untitled‘ by Christine Mignon
Boundaries‘ by Laurence Bouchard
Hardy Falls – Mt Magazine – AR‘ by Becky Foster

Music I’m Digging

Neat Podcast Episodes

Good Reads for the Week

Cool Things

The Roundup for March 24-30, 2018 Edition

From the Deep by Christopher Parsons

This has been a particularly grey week — the weather has been mostly overcast and slightly rainy — and it’s had all the hallmark effects on my mood and attitude as it did when I lived on the west coast of Canada. With hindsight, I can see that some of the depressive funks I fell into while doing my PhD were the result of the weather, combined with diet and work/life imbalance. And when I was on the west coast, I discovered that getting in some significant amount of walking each day was what it took to fight through those funks.

Cue this week, and the solution has been getting into an exercise room and just doing work I didn’t really want to do, but which I intellectually knew would improve my perspective on life as soon as I was done my circuit. Unsurprisingly, each day that I dragged myself to exercise helped to improve my next day. In the UK, this has been taken a step further, and persons who are experiencing seasonal affective disorder, anti-social behaviour, or other mental health challenges are being prescribed exercise, socialization, and related activities that are meant to naturally modify the chemistry of their bodies and brains. No pills or drugs required.

It strikes me that such prescriptions could have a range of positive outcomes. First and foremost, for those who ‘fill’ the scripts, they might derive relief from the symptoms affecting them. That’s a clear win. But, second, it would have the effect of pushing people who might avoid certain kinds of physical activity to be there, with others, and realize that the portrayals of ‘fit’ or ‘active’ people in the movies and television tend to be drastically out of step with reality. I know that in my own case, I had this idealized idea of what people looked like when they exercised, how hard they worked, and so forth. But by going and exercising I’ve improved upon my own sense of my body by, first, doing some exercise but, second, seeing that the persons who are exercising look an awful lot like me.

In other words, developing a pretty regular exercise routine has had the dual effect of improving my mental health by just pushing my body, as well as improving my sense of bodily self-worth by destigmatizing my (pretty normal) body. I imagine that were more and more people gently pushed to get into workout rooms, running groups, or other socialized exercise spaced they, too, would experience that similarly destigmatizing experience.


New Apps and Great App Updates from this Week

Great Photography Shots

Unsurprisingly, I was crazy impressed by several of the images which were submitted to, and won at, the 2018 Sony World Photography Awards.

‘An unexpected meeting’ © Justyna Zdunczyk, Poland, Winner, Open Wildlife and Winner, Poland National Award, 2018 Sony World Photography Awards. I was about to leave the Sequoia National Park when from the corner of my eye I saw a beautiful clearing bathed in A fog. Without thinking too much, I ran with the camera to take some pictures. When I reached the clearing, I heard the crack of broken twigs and I can’t say, that I was not afraid since Sequoia National Park is a home for black bears and people are warned about it at every step. When I turned around, fortunately, there was not any bear, instead, I saw a curious mule deer walking towards me who cheerfully chewed his supper. Soon after other deer joined him and we just stood there together for a while and watched each other. It was one of the most beautiful moments during my trip thru California, this autumn.
‘Early autumn’ © Veselin Atanasov, Winner, Open Landscape & Nature and Winner, Bulgaria National Award, 2018 Sony World Photography Awards. The autumn has begun to decorate with its colors the woods of the Balkans. National Park – Central Balkan, Bulgaria.
‘The man and the mysterious tower’ © Andreas Pohl, Germany, Winner, Open, Architecture (Open competition), 2018 Sony World Photography Awards. Vertical wind tunnel built in the years 1934 to 1936 for aeronautical studies in Berlin-Adlershof. The photo was taken on 9th January 2017 at 4:26 pm when the dusk already set in. I took the photo because I had it in mind for more than 2 years without a chance…cause there is not much snow in Berlin.
‘Hayder museum’ © Abdulla AL-Mushaifri, Winner, Qatar National Award, 2018 Sony World Photography Awards. Hayder Cultural Center, Baku Azerbaijan
‘Gas Station’ © Chul-Ui Song, Winner, South Korea National Award, 2018 Sony World Photography Awards.

Music I’m Digging

Neat Podcast Episodes

Good Reads for the Week

Cool Things